NGO-bashing is a populist sport in Czech Republic and elsewhere in Central Europe — but civil society is fighting back.
By Tim Gosling
Non-governmental organisations have become a favourite target of populists in Central Europe. But one Czech non-profit is fighting back with a legal case that is seen as a crucial test of democracy and the rule of law.
The Czech branch of anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International (TI) is suing Prime Minister Andrej Babis for slander.
According to David Ondracka, TI’s high-profile director in the Czech Republic, alleged slurs by Babis are all part of an attempt to “delegitimise the messenger” by labelling his NGO “corrupt”.
EU audits have found that the billionaire premier is in conflict of interest regarding subsidies. These troubles threaten to strip Agrofert, the agrochemicals conglomerate he put into trust in 2017, of millions of euro.
The probes were sparked by complaints from TI that in reality Babis remains in control of the group, while he also directs the distribution of funding that flows from Brussels.
TI is now suing the prime minister for unfairly damaging its reputation. TI demands he apologise for a series of comments questioning its financing and relationships with various ministries, state-owned companies and other sponsors.
As the court case opened on January 13, the judge accepted 14 instances and decided the hearing will continue in February.
TI insists that its funding and accounts are fully transparent and can be publicly viewed.
“The worst thing in the world for an anti-corruption NGO is to have its integrity questioned,” Ondracka told BIRN. “If such false statements become the norm then everyone becomes a target and the whole of civil society will become delegitimised.”
Babis’s lawyers say the premier was not putting forward a factual argument that TI is engaged in criminal activity, but rather expressing a personal view that the NGO accepts funding in return for promoting foreign or hostile interests.
The prime minister’s counsel also contends that TI has used similarly sharp rhetoric against Babis. It says it has labelled the oligarch a fraudster and a predator, and accused him of stealing from the state and committing political corruption.
“The applicant has already crossed a certain threshold and is directly involved in the political struggle,” the lawyer concluded in court.
On a personal basis, there is clearly little love lost between Babis and Ondracka, who in 2013 discussed joining the billionaire’s ANO party, tempted by a suggestion he could become interior minister.
However, as Babis’s lawyer inadvertently pointed out by noting TI’s political role, the case is part of a far bigger story. It is a test of the ability of institutions and civil society to stand their ground in the face of the kind of amalgamated economic and political heft that the prime minister represents.
As the court case opened on January 7, Petr Honzejk, a columnist for the daily broadsheet Hospodarske noviny, pronounced it as “absolutely crucial”.
“It is not only about the extent to which false statements are admissible in public debate, but whether the arrogance of power in the Czech Republic can continue to rise with impunity,” he wrote.
Further than that even, it is also part of a pushback against populist pressure on the whole NGO sector.
NGOs are an inconvenient watchdog for governments accused of human rights abuses, authoritarianism and corruption.
Highlighting “a startling lack of political integrity”, TI says Babis’s conflict of interest, as well as a long-running fraud investigation against the billionaire, helped push the Czech Republic six places lower in its 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index to share 44th place with Georgia and Costa Rica.
Populist and authoritarian political forces have also discovered that NGOs can be a useful target. Attacks against non-profit organisations help them stoke fears of globalist conspiracies and outsiders that they manufacture within the population.
“This case is part of the wider debate across the region regarding the relationship between the state and civil society,” said Pavel Havlicek, an analyst at the Prague-based Association for International Affairs.
Within the EU, Hungary represents one extreme version of this debate. Taking a leaf out of Moscow’s book, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s regime adopted legislation in 2017 that requires NGOs that receive funding from abroad to publicly declare it and file additional financial reports.
The measure is designed to discredit and silence civil society organisations that try to hold the government to account on its obligations concerning corruption, environmental protection, fundamental rights, democracy and the rule of law, warns the Hungarian Helsinki Committee rights group.
NGOs do not face the same level of pressure from Prague. Indeed, the ministry of foreign affairs offered strong backing to People in Need in late 2019 when Russia effectively banned the Czech non-profit.
However, civil society has also been fighting attacks for years from political actors that, aside from the prime minister, range from the president in Prague Castle to extremist parties.
Controversial head of state Milos Zeman regularly baits non-profit organisations. This appears to boost his standing among members of his electorate, mostly older and provincial, who lap up his spiteful rhetoric on refugees and Islam.
The president told parliament in a speech in 2018 that NGOs are parasites on the public purse. “They should use their own money and not sponge on the state,” he demanded.
‘Good and evil’
Such rhetoric clearly helps to turn opinion against civil society. Public trust in Czech “non-profit organisations” has plummeted since the EU migrant crisis in 2015 and continues to drop, surveys show.
Overcoming this animosity is a major challenge for Czech civil society, Havlicek said.
Ondracka agreed. TI has a responsibility to act in the face of this assault, he said.
“In some ways the case against Babis is saying enough is enough. We have greater resources than most other NGOs, so if we don’t step up, who will?”
One of the main and most effective tactics Czech NGOs face is divide and conquer. Populists demand that “political” NGOs, such as those working on corruption or environmental issues, must be separated from those working directly with the public.
“We differentiate between publicly beneficial NGOs engaged in supporting sporting activities, culture, helping seniors and such, and NGOs with a political agenda,” Lubomir Volny of the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy Party (SPD) has said.
“More and more people believe there is a dichotomy of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ NGOs,” Ondracka said. “We are a political actor clearly, but we remain neutral. In this region, there’s a belief that you have no right to get involved in the political process unless elected.”
There is no shortage, either, of figures calling for the Czech Republic to adopt the Russian and Hungarian approach.
One is politician Vaclav Klaus Jr, whose father is often viewed as one of Europe’s earliest enemies of civil society. Klaus the elder would regularly condemn environmentalism, “pro-Europeanism”, “NGOism” and “homosexualism” during his years as prime minister and then president in the 1990s and 2000s.
After being kicked out of the centre-right Civic Democratic Party last year, Klaus Jr formed the nationalist-populist Tricolor party. He quickly began to demand an end to state funding of all “political” NGOs, and has called for the names of any sponsors offering funding from outside the country to be publicly declared.
In the face of this assault, however, Czech NGOs are raising their game. And unlike their Russian and Hungarian peers, they are confident that in Czech Republic, civil engagement and the rule of law is strong enough to back them.
“We’re not in the same situation as Hungary, but neither are we like Western Europe,” analyst Havlicek said. “We’ll see which way we will head in the coming years, but I’m quite optimistic. Czech civil society is now pushing back strongly.”
He added that a forthcoming EU challenge to Hungary’s foreign agent law should help keep the lid on any efforts to roll out something similar in Czech Republic.
Ondracka is also hopeful.
“The risk of sliding towards a Hungarian scenario is clear, but Czech civil society is robust, and becoming more so,” the TI chief said, noting recent mass protests against Babis and Zeman.
Czech institutions are also strong, and TI’s case should get a fair hearing, most commentators agree.
“However, the threat will continue because the potential benefits are clear for certain actors,” Ondracka said. “Political NGOs like us are on the agenda now. Others could be in the future. If we lose this case, then the risk is that this opens the floodgates and it will be open season for delegitimising all NGOs.”